Taisho Democracy (大正デモクラシー)

Taisho Democracy refers to the movements that emerged in Japan's Taisho period, urging for greater freedom and democracy in politics, society and culture.

There are various theories and claims on what can be defined as Taisho Democracy. Although there are differences also regarding the time period for Taisho Democracy depending on the definition of this period, with some dating it from 1905 to 1925 and others claiming the period to be from 1918 to 1931 or from 1905 to 1931, consensus can be found in the facts that the period centers on the reign of Emperor Taisho (1912-1926), along with the end of World War I in 1918 and the rice riots in Toyama Prefecture marking the rise of movements calling for greater democracy.


The Taisho Democracy movement (or Taisho Democracy for short) is a name given collectively to the social climate and thought oriented toward democracy and freedom that emerged during the Taisho period and swept the entire country. There was a wide range of movements organized by a variety of groups organized voluntarily in various areas of society, such as political movements calling for elections and for freedom of speech, assembly and association, the drive in the area of foreign policy opposing dispatch of troops to other countries that imposed a huge burden on citizens in poverty, movement in society demanding gender equality, liberation and non-discrimination of "buraku" people, and winning rights of association and labor strikes, and in the cultural sphere movements calling for free education, self-autonomy of universities and independence of art associations from the rule of the Ministry of Education.

The name "Taisho Democracy" was coined by the historian Seizaburo SHINOBU (third son of Junpei SHINOBU) who proposed the use of the term in his own work and became widely used ever since. However, the term was created after World WarⅡ, prompting the argument that the term is inappropriate as a history term due to the ambiguity of its definition and content, though supporters of this argument are in the minority.


Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese War brought relaxation of international tensions in Asia, leading to the formation of the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance (Tongmenghui) in Tokyo in 1905 and other movements aspiring to winning democratic freedom. Simultaneously, Japan's rapid development of capitalism and economic growth raised political and civic awareness in the general public and resulted in the formation of various voluntary groups to address a variety of issues and cultivation of a social climate that encouraged action to win freedom and human rights and to liberate people from suppression.

It was under such conditions that an uprising broke out in 1911 ("Xinhai Year" in the sexagenary cycle of the Chinese calendar) in Szechwan Province, opposing railway nationalization by the imperial government, and led to the declaration of independence and establishment of the Republic of China by the aforementioned Chinese Revolutionary Alliance (Xinhai Revolution). Deciding that the political confusion in China was a prime opportunity for Japan to expand its power, War Minister Yūsaku UEHARA proposed to the third administration of Prime Minister Kinmochi SAIONJI to create two new infantry divisions on the Korean Peninsula. However, SAIONJI's refusal on grounds of fiscal problems stemming from the Russo-Japanese War and of issues of international relations led to UEHARA driving the Saionji administration to mass resignation by taking advantage of the law requiring that the military-related ministers to be named from among active-duty military officers in order to form an army-led administration.

The third administration of Taro KATSURA, a member of the Meiji oligarchy representing dominant former feudal domains and strongly influenced by the Japanese Imperial Army, was formed under these circumstances. The Katsura cabinet angered the Japanese people and drew criticism of oligarchic rule by Yukio OZAKI and Tsuyoshi INUKAI of the Lower House of the Imperial Diet, spurring the first Movement to Protect Constitutional Government aimed at "doing away with the oligarchy and protecting constitutional rule" and ending with mass resignation of the cabinet after only 53 days (Taisho Political Crisis). The next administration led by Prime Minister Gonbei YAMAMOTO, with Rikken Seiyukai (Friends of Constitutional Government) as mainstream party, worked on reform to curb the influence of the Imperial Army and Navy in civilian government, including the abrogation of the law requiring military-related ministers to be active-duty military officers, but was forced into mass resignation in face of public ire over the corruption scandal involving high-ranking navy officers (Siemens Scandal).

When World WarⅠ broke out following the Sarajevo Incident, the second Shigenobu OKUMA administration declared war on Germany under the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and entered the war. This built the momentum for international cooperation in Japan and intensified the movements for democracy and liberalism.

Democracy and the Emperor as Organ Theory

With the publication of the political magazine "Daisan Teikoku" (The Third Empire) by Tomoji ISHIDA and others and the proposal of government founded on democracy by Sakuzo YOSHINO of Tokyo Imperial University, the movement calling for popular elections began to grow. In addition, Tatsukichi MINOBE proposed the "Emperor-as-organ" theory, arguing that the nation should be the body holding sovereignty, and supported cabinet formation by political parties. This theory was opposed by Shinkichi UESUGI who upheld the stance that the Emperor holds sovereignty but was repeatedly brought to attention as the foundation for interpretation of the Constitution in realizing legislative rule.

The theory upheld by YOSHINO and MINOBE of Tokyo Imperial University was buttressed further by journalists and other political scientists such as Nyozekan HASEGAWA of Chuo University and Ikuo OYAMA of Waseda University.

Rice Riots~Japan's First Full-fledged Party Cabinet

In 1917 when the Russian Revolution broke out, prompting the Masatake TERAUCHI cabinet to announce on July 12 the dispatch of troops to Siberia, rice merchants anticipated a sharp rise in demand and curbed rice sales, causing rice prices to skyrocket.

Amid this development, the clash between rice dealers and citizens that broke out in Toyama Prefecture spread quickly throughout the country, with rice riots involving destruction and burning of stores occurring frequently for two months. The riots that were also linked to the widening divide in wealth caused by wars and suppression of free speech against newspapers subsided to some extent with the mass resignation of the TERAUCHI cabinet on September 21, paving the way for the inauguration of the first full-fledged party cabinet under Takashi HARA, who was called "the commoner Prime Minister," on September 27 of the same year.

Second Movement to Protect Constitutional Government

With the attempt on the life of Emperor Showa (then Prince Regent) by Daisuke NANBA on December 27 (Toranomon Incident), the second Gonbei YAMAMOTO cabinet was forced to resign and was replaced by an administration under Keigo KIYOURA, who was chairman of the House of Peers (Japan). The cabinet consisting of nearly all of the members of the House of Peers was clearly detached from the principles of constitutional rule and sparked the second Movement to Protect Constitutional Government among the people. This led to the formation of the Takaaki KATO administration by the three pro-constitution factions of Rikken Seiyukai, Kenseikai and Kakushin Kurabu and to the legislation of the Universal Manhood Suffrage Act that abolished the restriction of voting right based on property (tax payment) and granted the right to all men aged over 25 for organization of popular elections. However, the birth of the Soviet Union during the period spurred the spread of communism in Japan and prompted the government fearing revolutionary movement by Communist agitators to pass the Peace Preservation Act and control popular movements.

Assessment by Later Historians

There are many, including Edwin O. REISCHAUER, who argue that the Taisho Democracy holds great significance as the heritage that laid the foundation for postwar democracy in Japan. Tanzan ISHIBASHI wrote in his book "Taisho Jidai no Shinhyoka" (True Assessment of the Taisho Period) that it was "a new period of great noteworthiness in the history of development of democracy."

The conservative intellectuals that uphold this idea are called "old liberalists" by postwar generations of researchers.